What is agriculture?
Agriculture, or farming, is the simplification of nature's food webs and the rechanneling of energy for human planting and animal consumption. Huh? You may ask. To simplify, agriculture involves redirecting nature's natural flow of the food web. The natural flow of the food web is-the sun provides light to plants. Plants convert sunlight into sugars which provide food for the plants(this process is called photosynthesis). Plants provide food for herbivores (plant-eating animals, i.e., sloths) and the herbivores provide food for carnivores (meat-eating animals, i.e., jaguars). Decomposers or bacteria, break down plants or animals that have died. Nutrients from the plants and animals go back into the soil and the whole process starts anew.
Rice in Indonesia. Photos by Rhett Butler
What happens with agriculture is that this web is interrupted. Instead of having herbivores eat the plants, the plants are protected for human consumption. This means that not only are plant eating animals excluded from the food web, but also carnivorous animals and even decomposers. However, if a farmer is planting corn to feed their cattle, the cattle eat the corn to fatten up and then are eventually slaughtered for human consumption. Even though a herbivore (cow) is eating the plant (corn) the web in interrupted when the cow is killed for human consumption.
Are there different types of agriculture?
Yes. There is conventional agriculture and sustainable agriculture (agro-ecology).
Conventional agriculture, most commonly practiced in the United States, usually involves the following criteria:
Tea in Kenya
Here are some examples of crops which undergo conventional agriculture: corn, wheat, rice, bananas, soy bean, etc
What are the effects of conventional agriculture?
Sustainable agriculture (agro-ecology) uses ecological principles to farm, hence the prefix agro- to farm and ecology- the science of the relationship between organisms and their environments. Agro-ecology involves:
Agricultural deforestation in Brazil
Here are some examples of sustainable agriculture crops: shade coffee; multiple cropping in Germany- for example, they plant carrots, beets, and onions together in a plot; in Mexico, they do the same with corn, bean, and squash. In Italy, they plant both annual and perennial crops to create a diverse home garden; in other areas, they use cover cropping in orchards to inhibit weed growth, etc.
What are the effects of sustainable agriculture?
Which type of agriculture practice do you think is better for the environment and ultimately ourselves? Before you answer, here are some interesting facts:
Did you know that according to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) that 90% of deforestation is caused by unsustainable agriculture?
Did you know that in Costa Rica, 133 ant species and 126 beetle species were found in just one shade coffee tree. Talk about diversity!
Okay, so which agricultural practice is better? Did you say sustainable agriculture? I can't hear you ...say it louder, SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE! You're right on the money, in more ways than one.
Corn field in Colombia
So, you've heard the term slash-and-burn agriculture and you're wondering what this is?
This is a type of unsustainable agriculture. It occurs in rain forests where the soil is poor in nutrients. Remember, most of the nutrients are "locked" in the leaf litter, plants, and trees. The soil gets its nutrients from the leaf litter and plants. Farmers who practice slash-and-burn agriculture know that the nutrients are "locked" in the vegetation. This is why they slash (cut) and burn the trees, plants and leaves. The ashes from the burned vegetation provide nutrients to the soil (fertilize the soil) for the planting of both staple and cash crops. After a few years, the soil loses its nutrients and the farmers migrate (move) to another piece of forest to clear and burn a new plot of land for planting.
Staple crops are plants that farmers can live on: manioc, plantains, bananas, sweet potato, pineapple, chili pepper, and others.
Cash crops are crops farmers can sell for money: sugar cane, coffee, tobacco, etc.
Is this type of agriculture harmful to the environment?
It can be if farmers raise cattle on an agriculture field that has just been farmed for 2 years (the maximum fertility of a slash-and-burn agriculture field). This can be a death sentence to the soil, since the cattle remove the last traces of fertility from the soil.
Should we blame these farmers for the deforestation of forests?
No. There are many complex factors which play into the deforestation of forests. We've already learned about logging as a major factor, but we havn't discussed the international, national, and local factors. One reason why these nomadic (traveling) farmers practice slash-and-burn agriculture is because they have no other means of employment and thus survival. They must plant crops to eat (to sustain their lives) and they must make money (by selling cash crops). If the government provided job opportunities for these farmers, maybe they wouldn't have to resort to this type of subsistence. What do you think?
An upside to slash-and-burn agriculture:
According to Kricher, a study in Costa Rica demonstrated that slash and burn does not, in the short run, degrade the soil. Researcher cut, mulched, and burned a site that contained patches of eight- to nine-year-old forest and seventy-year-old forest. Before the burn there were approximately 8,000 seeds per square meter of soil, representing 67 species. After the burn the figure dropped to 3,000 seeds/square meter, representing 37 species. Mycorrhizal fungi survived the burn, and large quantities of nutrients were released to the soil following burning. The remaining seeds sprouted, and vegetation regrew vigorously on the site (Kricher, 1997, p. 177).
What's agriculture like in Costa Rica?
Bananas are Costa Rica's number one export. This has been a blessing, in that, it has provided a lot of money to the country, but it has also created some problems. From a social perspective, the job opportunities in the banana plantations have enticed poor people from Nicaragua to immigrate to Costa Rica. This has caused tension between the Costa Rican farmers and the Nicarguan people; both groups wind up competing for jobs (working in the banana plantations). From an environmental perspective, the banana plantations cover 245,440 hectares of land, all of which used to be tropical rain forests. Supposedly, the climate is "perfect" for growing bananas. In addition, rivers have become terribly polluted with blue-plastic bags. These blue bags are used to cover the bananas while they are growing in the plantation fields. The Sarah Piqui River often has blue bags everywhere!
What about shade grown coffee?
Yes! There is a wonderful organization called CAN (Community Agroecology Network) which helps local Costa Rican farmers grow coffee in a sustainable way and earn more money per pound of coffee.
How does CAN do this?
The co-op basically cuts out all the middle-men who take money from the farmers as the coffee moves from the field to the market. When this happens, more money is left for the farmers. In fact, farmers earn even more money through this co-op than they would through conventional Fair Trade.
Coffee in Costa Rica
How do these farmers grow their coffee?
All of their coffee is shade grown and they maintain the natural, bio-diverse environment to grow their coffee. They also use sustainable planting practices such as intercropping and cover-cropping. In addition, no insecticides or pesticides are used and farmers practice reforestation as well.
How can we support these farmers?
Easy! If you want to learn more about the co-op, check out their web-site at www.communityagroecology.net. In fact, one of the CAN communities is located in Agua Buena, Coto Brus; just south of Manuel Antonio. If you'd like to order coffee, just print out the form on the web-site and send it in or order on-line. In no time, you'll receive a large bag of aromatic, organic, Costa Rican coffee at your door-step. It's the best coffee ever! This is a great gift for your parents or relatives who must have that cup of coffee in the morning.
Also, when you graduate from high-school, you can do an internship with CAN and learn how these farmers grow their coffee in a sustainable way. You can also help other coffee farmers do the same through outreach education and collaboration.
It's that time again. Show yourself what you've learned by answering the following questions:
staple crops a.) no rain
nomadic b.) a co-op which helps coffee farmers
drought c.) sugar cane, coffee, tobacco, etc
cash crops d.) traveling
CAN e.) plantains, sweet potato, bananas
10. T or F. Poor farmers are to blame for the deforestation of rainforest.
Answers are located after the references.
Pen Pal Question and Conversation: Discuss with your Pen Pal what you can do as global citizens to encourage sustainable agriculture. How would you encourage your friends, family members, and local farmers to do the same?
Kricher, J. (1997). A Neotropical Companion: An introduction to the animals, plants, & ecosystems of the New World Tropics. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
A chapter, Introduction To Agroecology, from a book by Greg Gilbert.
Deforestation for palm oil in Borneo
Answers to the questions:
nomadic d.) traveling
drought a.) no rain
cash crops c.) sugar cane, coffee, and tobacco
CAN b.) a co-op which help coffee farmers
How did you do? I'm sure you did FANTASTIC!
The following standards were addressed in this lesson:
Physical Sciences: Energy and matter have multiple forms and can be changed from one form to another. As a basis for understanding this concept (a) Students know energy comes from the Sun to Earth in the form of light, and (b) Students know sources of stored energy take many forms, such as food, fuel, and batteries. Note: This lesson address food as a source of stored energy.
Life Sciences: Students know living things cause changes in the environment in which they live: some of these changes are detrimental to the organism or other organisms, and some are beneficial.
Reading: Vocabulary and Concept Development (1.6) Use sentence and word context to find the meaning of unknown words (1.8) Use knowledge of prefixes (e.g., un-, re-, pre-, bi-, mis-, dis-,) to determine the meaning of words.
Writing: Organization and Focus (1.1) Create a single paragraph (a) Develop a topic sentence, and (b) Include simple supporting facts and details.
Social Studies: 3.5 Students demonstrate basic economic reasoning skills and an understanding of the economy of the local region. (1) Describe the ways in which local producers (and abroad) have used and are using natural resources, human resources, and capital resources to produce goods and services in the past and the present.
About these lesson plans and resources
This lesson plan was developed by Lisa M. Algee, an Environmental Education Ph D student at the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC). Lisa runs a site called Kids Connected to Conservation and Culture which focuses on educating the next generation about environmental issues, such as deforestation, and what we can do as global citizens to curb these detrimental effects.
More Agriculture photos
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